Sep 30, 2013 | downtoearth

Since the Right To Education Act came into force on April 1, 2010, India has been witnessing an experiment that involves parents in enforcing a fundamental right—right to elementary education. The devolution experiment rivals the country’s Panchayati raj in outreach. After three years, the less-talked-about flagship programme of the United Progressive Alliance at the Centre seems to be the least performing one as well. By March 31 this year, not a single child in the country should have been out of school and parents should have been managing the affairs of neighbourhood schools, scripting a new era in education. Down To Earth reporters travel to four states and analyse if the Central government has managed to achieve its goals for which it is legally responsible

Christopher MacsurakPhoto: Christopher Macsurak

This is unusual for a school in the ravines of Chambal, still dreaded for bandits. A primary school that has 35 students, many of them girls, opens and closes on time. Teachers are regular and children get nutritious mid-day meals, without fail. The school in Himmatpura village in Uttar Pradesh’s Jalan district is a rare example of communities taking charge of education.

imageThe village did not have a school until 2005. “We used to send our children to a school in neighbouring village, dominated by upper caste communities. There the teachers would often refuse to teach our children because we belong to lower castes,” recalls Siyaram Dohari, a resident of Himmatpura. She and other residents of the village had fought hard to get the school in their village, but it was barely functioning.

In 2010, the government adopted the Right To Education (RTE) Act, which emphasises on the importance of community in ensuring education to children. Himmatpura residents used the Act as a tool to take charge of the school. Parents and other residents united to form a School Management Committee (SMC) as per the RTE guidelines to monitor the school functioning and ensure quality education.

imageThe village school has opened new doors for girl children who had slim chances of getting education,” says Abhilasha Kumari. She is the first student from Himmatpura to have completed higher secondary education and is pursuing a college degree. After returning from college, she helps her father, an SMC member, in day-to-day management of the school. Devi aspires to be a teacher. The SMC, determined to churn out many more like Devi, is proactive in ensuring quality education to children. Deep Kumari, a 45-year-old SMC member, says, “The SMC locked out the school twice last year when teachers did not come on time.” Last year the committee forced the school authorities to use the unspent school fund of Rs 5,000 to give the school a new coat of colour. Though not widely known, this is for the first time that communities are enforcing a fundamental right in the country. In 2002, the Constitution was amended to make elementary education a fundamental right. To protect the right, Parliament enacted the Rights of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act or the RTE Act in August 2009, which came into force on April 1, 2010.

The Act, for the first time, makes the government legally responsible to ensure elementary education (up to class VIII) to children between six and 14 years. The Act guarantees free and compulsory education in neighbourhood schools within three years of enactment. In private schools, it provides 25 per cent reservation for students from economically weaker sections of society. Under the Act, the government must ensure proper infrastructure, meet the prescribed teacher-pupil ratio and student-class ratio by 2013. It should also train all teachers to adhere to the prescribed quality by 2015 (see ‘Right To Education Goals’).

A unique feature of the Act is to ensure elementary education through community participation. It calls for setting up SMCs by roping in parents, teachers and elected representatives who will supervise the functioning of the school, decide the number of teachers required and ensure quality education. It has a dedicated budget to do the job. Yamini Aiyar, head of Delhi non-profit Accountability Initiative, who has been tracking implementation of RTE, says, “SMC makes education planning evolve from bottom to top.”

Dilemma of an all-women village

Kalouthara village in Uttar Pradesh’s Lalitpur district has no men. Displaced by a dam some 30 years ago, they have all migrated in search of livelihood, leaving behind women and children. It is an assumed rule that a School Management Committee (SMC) cannot be formed without men and hence, Kalouthara primary school does not have an SMC.

Ten-year-old Rakhi Kumari wants to study, but teachers do not come to the school to teach. “There are just two teachers who leave soon after the mid-day meal is served,” she says. Ramabati Devi, a ward member from the village, admits that residents have no say in the functioning of the school. Meanwhile, Rakhi is worried that her dream of becoming a police officer will shatter as the village does not have an upper primary school. Under the Right To Education Act, the government should build a school for her within one kilometre of the village.

The RTE Act is the third flagship programme of the United Progressive Alliance-II (UPA-II) at the Centre that has codified basic entitlements like employment and information. But unlike the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right To Information Act, RTE deals with a fundamental right enshrined in the Constitution. The adoption of RTE is the culmination of the demand for free and compulsory elementary education since the pre- Independence era. Is this grand devolution experiment in ensuring education through communities working?

Bleak scenario

The success story of Himmatpura fizzles out the moment one steps out of the village (see ‘Dilemma of an all-women village’).

imageIn nearby Asahana village, Seema Devi says SMCs have no relevance. In 2011, following demands by Asahana residents, the government upgraded the village primary school, but did not provide more teachers. Now there are only two teachers to manage eight classes. “How is this possible? Most of their time is spent in supervising mid-day meals,” says Seema, an SMC member of the school.

“We have written to the district authorities several times for providing teachers for upper primary classes but they are yet to respond. Most SMC members have stopped coming for meetings,” she adds. These days, she sends her 10-year-old daughter Muskan to a private school, some 10 km from her village. “The school bus charges Rs 300 a month while the school fee is Rs 100.”

This is the state of affairs in most places across the country where the nodal community body is being pushed into oblivion.

Take for instance Andhra Pradesh. It was the first state to have formulated rules for enforcing the right. But its initial enthusiasm did not last long. The state has 80,109 SMCs with 2.4 million members, covering all government schools. Under the state rules, an SMC includes elected parents’ representatives, a teacher nominated by block education officer, head teacher of the school and local elected members, and is led by an elected village head.

The committee is supposed to meet once in two months for reviewing school functioning. But that has not happened in the past two years because all local bodies in the state remained headless between August 2011 and August 2013 as elections did not take place due to reservation issues.

Community takes charge

For more than 10 years, residents of 56 villages in Amrabad block of Andhra Pradesh’s Mahabubnagar district have been demanding the government to appoint teachers in village schools, but to no avail. Of the 75 schools in the block, 14 have no teachers and 15 have only one. There are only 81 teachers against the requirement of 148. Several schools closed down due to lack of teachers. This year, in an attempt to meet criteria of the Right To Education Act, which calls for appointing qualified teachers, the government did away with Vidya volunteers (untrained tribal teachers who used to teach in many schools in the block). Residents of the block now want the government to scrap an order that says only tribal teachers be appointed in the Schedule Five block. Residents say the order violates children’s rights because there are 500 qualified non-tribal teachers in the block. Besides, the tribal population in Amrabad is now just 10 per cent, says P Venkateswarlu, former block panchayat member. “We want a fresh population survey,” he adds. As of now, right to education is a distant dream for Amrabad children.

Maharashtra’s education department claims that the state ranks among top five states with 91 per cent schools having SMCs. Experts say the figure is inflated. “One can see lists of SMC members displayed on notice boards at state government-run zilla parishad schools. Such lists are rare in municipal schools and missing in private schools as they discourage SMCs,” says Arundhati Chavan, president of Parents-Teachers Unity Forum (PTUF).

imageTribal-dominated Yavatmal district is one of the few places in Maharashtra where SMCs seem to have made an impact. “No child in the age group of six to 14 remains out of school now,” says a proud Sangita Atram, vice-president of SMC in Mulgawhan village of Zari Jamni block. Last year, SMC members of Kodpha Khindi village in the block demolished an under-constructed kitchen shed of the school, citing poor construction and asked the contractor to rebuild it under their supervision.

But lately they are facing alienation. SMC members allege teachers try to retain control over decision-making and implementation of infrastructure projects. The upper primary school of Jhari village lacks electricity, water, toilets and kitchen shed. “The building also is crumbling. Despite availability of funds, the headmistress has not undertaken any work because she does not want SMC to monitor construction,” alleges Shirpat Arke, former president of Jhari SMC.

SMCs that are strong and have received good training have made an impact in the school administration, says Yogini Dolke, who heads Yavatmal-based non-profit Srujan. But only three to four per cent SMCs are actually active, she adds.

“In our area SMCs were formed a year ago. Most members are not aware that they can actually intervene in the school functioning.” Dolke says capacity-building and awareness generation among SMCs are the key to ensure effective implementation of RTE (see ‘Community takes charge’).

District education officer of Yavatmal, Siddheswar Chandekar, says all SMCs receive training at the beginning of the school session, but this is not sufficient. “In backward areas, communities are not used to official work. They still cannot believe that the school in their village belongs to them,” Chandekar adds.

Objective lost

SMC was to involve parents in development and management of school and set up an accountability system. But so far, only 68 per cent of the country’s schools have constituted SMCs, according to a report by the District Information System for Education (DISE), set up by the government to track RTE implementation. There is a wide variation in state-level data, which ranges from five per cent in Maharashtra to 99 per cent in Himachal Pradesh.

Himmatpura primary school is supervised by school management committeeHimmatpura primary school is supervised by school management committee (Photo: Jitendra)

To do its job, SMCs get funds under three categories: school development, maintenance and teaching learning material. These grants account for two per cent of a school’s total budget but are crucial. A report by non-profit Accountability Initiative, called the PAISA report, shows schools do not receive the grants regularly. In 2011-12, only 74 per cent schools received all the three grants. This is an improvement over the previous year when 69 per cent schools received the grants. Besides, close to 30 per cent SMCs are yet to open a bank account to receive the fund.

Vague definition

“There is no school dropout in Yavatmal,” claims Siddheshwar Chandekar, the district education officer. But how true is his claim? The Right To Education (RTE) Act has provisions for school dropouts. The Act says such students must be identified and given exclusive tutorials and admitted back to age-appropriate classes. But it is a difficult task because the state’s education department is short-staffed. So, comes into play the logic of definition. The district has 3,000 “absentee” students. Absentees, Chandekar explains, are students who are not attending school but their names are registered in the school. A student is regarded a school dropout if he fails to turn up for months together. This definition lacks clarity, says Mohan Jadhav, who works on RTE under a Unicef programme. Schools use this vague definitions to cover up the dropout phenomenon. Once registered in a school, the name of the student is not struck off till parents officially remove her or transfer her to another school for fear of reduced enrolment numbers. Attendance figures are botched so that schools can continue receiving student maintenance costs, Jadhav explains. There are dropouts in villages where School Management Committees are not strong. But their names remain in school registers giving a false impression of high enrolment.

“Meager budget and inclusion of the collective decision of community are major challenges,” says Aiyar. The decision of SMCs is hardly accepted by the district level authority, which takes the final decision related to RTE. They often have pre-filled formats that hardly include SMC decisions, says Aiyar.

imageJohn Kurien, member of the Action for the Rights of the Child (ARC), an umbrella body of 25 non-profits across Maharashtra, says till RTE was implemented, the government’s approach towards education was “scheme-based” and not “rights-based”. “So the departments concerned are not only conceptually unprepared but also institutionally unprepared,” he adds.

Caught unprepared

The scope of RTE is gigantic. It covers some 1.4 million schools, 5.6 million teachers and 190 million children.

So far, only five per cent schools in the country meet RTE provisions. In strict legal terms, recognition to the rest 95 per cent schools should have been withdrawn. But this is not possible in a country that does not have enough schools to meet the demand. As per the latest Delivery Monitoring Unit report of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), about 20,000 habitations in the country do not have schools. Of these, 11,607 need primary schools. Most of these habitations are in poor states with high illiteracy rate, such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Odisha.

The government’s grand aims of setting up schools in the neighbourhood and not leaving a single child out of school have fallen flat.

The PMO data shows that eight million children or 4.28 per cent of children in the age group of 6-14 are yet to be admitted to primary schools as required under RTE. On August 29, answering a question in Parliament, Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Shashi Tharoor, said 2.2 million children of 6-14 age group were out of school. Though the DISE report shows that the enrolment has increased by 1.8 million in primary section and by 4.1 million in upper primary sections within a year of implementing RTE, it shows a striking trend. The enrolment in government primary schools has decreased by 2.4 million while it has increased by 3.6 million in private schools.

A school in Amrabad block in Andhra Pradesh. Most schools in the block do not have teachers, let alone furnitureA school in Amrabad block in Andhra Pradesh. Most schools in the block do not have teachers, let alone furniture (Photo: M Suchitra)

Non-profit Pratham’s Annual State of Education Report of 2012 also shows that the proportion of out-of-school children has increased from 3.3 per cent in 2011 to 3.6 per cent in 2012. That of girl children has increased from 5.2 per cent to 6 per cent. Going by the Act’s mandate, the government should have surveyed every habitation to look for children between six and 14 years who are out of school and ensure their admission in a neighbourhood school. If there was no school within a kilometre of the habitation, it should have opened one. But this requires heavy investment in infrastructure and training some one million teachers. The government was given three years for doing all this. Despite using the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (SSA), or total literacy campaign, as the tool to implement RTE, it seems to have missed all legally mandatory goals under the RTE Act. “No state can claim to have achieved criteria enlisted in the Act,” says Vinod Raina, member of the Central Advisory Board of Education, the highest advisory body for education in the country.

imageIn some areas, officials are fudging the number of enrolled students to meet the RTE criteria on paper (see ‘Vague definition’).

The second major challenge is to make available the massive amount of funds required to implement the programme. Implementation of the RTE Act for five years would require Rs 2.34 lakh crore. Of this Rs 24,000 crore comes as the Finance Commission’s allocation to state governments. The rest has to be shared between the Centre and state on 65:35 ratio (90:10 for north-eastern states). “This means the Centre should have contributed Rs 34,000 crore a year. It never happened,” says Raina. The Centre has allocated just Rs 27,258 crore for 2013-14.

State governments are no better. “Financing of children education has gone from bad to worse over the years, particularly in the last three years,” says Praveen Jha, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The direct expenditure on child education is meager. According to the Centre for Policy Research, only 12 per cent of the overall education budget is spent on children. According to this report, barely half of India’s schools receive grants by the end of the first half of the financial year. During 2012-13, 54 per cent schools received their grants in November, thus, leading to erratic implementation of RTE.

The 2010 Anil Bordia Committee Report, which had estimated that Rs 1.7 trillion would be required for implementing RTE, indicated that states would have to double their shares for implementation of the RTE Act and committed salaries under SSA, the implementing vehicle of RTE. But it is imperative that the funds reach areas where they are needed most.

Left to god

Every morning seven-year-old Nisha Kumari stacks her four worn out books in a polythene bag and walks to a nearby temple. “The statue of Lord Hanuman always looks surprised with his eyes wide open,” says Nisha. She giggles at her own remark and starts reciting Hindi alphabets. A devotee enters the temple with lighted incense sticks and chants a religious hymn. Students stop reciting till she completes her prayer. The temple in Bihar’s Patna city is a government-run primary school, with 80 students on the roll. Since its establishment in 1955, classes are being held under the watchful eyes of god and humdrum of devotees. There are 40 such schools in Patna, running in temples, mosques, godowns and under trees since Independence. The government admits that 8,660 schools in Bihar are without buildings. Officials say the figure will rise in future. To meet the Right To Education Act provisions, the government is setting up hundreds of schools, but without infrastructure. Currently 58 per cent of the state’s 28 million children are going to schools. One can only imagine the situation when all children would go to schools.

imageConsider Bihar. In 2008, a year before the Act came into force, the issue of financing infrastructure for schools weighed so much on the Bihar government that the then principal secretary, education, Anjani Sinha, prepared a budget of Rs 28,000 crore—more than the state’s demand of Rs 20,000 crore to get special status tag—for implementing RTE in the state. The Centre rejected its plea. Now, to meet RTE goals, the government has opened schools everywhere but without any infrastructure, says Amardeep Sinha, principal secretary, education.

With limited budget, the state is now caught in the classic chicken and egg dilemma: whether it should first provide infrastructure to students or appoint trained teachers to offer quality education. Bihar needs to construct 575, 324 classrooms in nearly 70,238 schools. It also needs to appoint 168,000 teachers to meet the RTE criterion of one teacher for 30 pupils. But the state does not have enough institutions to train teachers. It has overhauled 52 teacher’s training institutes and set up four higher education training colleges, but they will take another 10 years to meet the faculty demand (see ‘Left to god’).

Teachers missing

Lack of trained teachers is the next big challenge for implementation of RTE. Section 23(2) of the Act says all teachers in elementary schools should be trained by 2015. As of now, one in every five teachers is not properly qualified. Though 83 per cent of government teachers are trained, 60 per cent of them are on contract basis, states the DISE report. Job insecurity often leads to poor teaching quality or the possibility of teachers quitting abruptly. “Insufficient compensation and job insecurity demoralises these young persons,” says J S Rajput, former director of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT).

A broken tube well at Jhari village school in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district. Former president of the school management committee (SMC), Shripat Arke, alleges the headmistress does not want to install a new tube well because she does not want the SMC to monitor its constructionA broken tube well at Jhari village school in Maharashtra’s Yavatmal district. Former president of the school management committee (SMC), Shripat Arke, alleges the headmistress does not want to install a new tube well because she does not want the SMC to monitor its construction (Photo: Aparna Pallavi)

According to Shashi Tharoor’s answer in Parliament, states need to recruit about 600,000 teachers as has been envisioned by SSA. Add to this the number of headmasters needed. As per DISE data, 42 per cent of primary schools and 46 per cent of upper primary schools are without a headmaster. Though under RTE rules, schools with less than 150 enrolments do not qualify for a headmaster, experts criticise this provision.

Anil Sadgopal of the All India Forum for Right to Education says the provision is “illogical” because not all schools have this kind of enrolment. “A school without a leader does not ensure quality education,” says Aditya Natraj of Kaivalaya Education Foundation, a non-profit training teachers in various states.

imageAn evaluation of SSA by the Planning Commission in 2011 shows, teacher shortage has severely affected education in most states. It pointed out that the involvement of teachers in non-teaching works like census survey, election duties, household surveys and supervision of mid-day meals impacted teaching quality. RTE suffers from the same problems.

As per section 25 (2) of the RTE Act, no teacher should be deployed for non-educational purpose except for decennial population census, disaster relief and elections. But the number of days for which teachers remain involved in non-teaching activities has increased from 14 to 19 days between 2009-10 and 2011-12.

Can private players be saviours?

Amid widespread reports of RTE mess, the government is looking to private players for help. It has said that to meet the huge requirement of funds and manpower to implement RTE, the public-private-partnership (PPP) model must be adopted. Several corporate houses have adopted government schools under their corporate social responsibility in 11 states.

A school in Siwan district, Bihar. Without sufficient funds the state opened hundreds of schools to meet the Right To Education criteria, but few have proper infrastructureA school in Siwan district, Bihar. Without sufficient funds the state opened hundreds of schools to meet the Right To Education criteria, but few have proper infrastructure (Photo: Prashant Ravi)

“Instead of focusing on government schools that still educate majority of students, there is an unnecessary attention on private players as saviours,” says Shantanu Mishra of non-profit Smile Foundation. The RTE Act already has provision for 25 per cent reservation in private schools for students belonging to economically weaker sections. So far, only 35 per cent of private schools have implemented this provision. The rest have moved the Supreme Court arguing that RTE should not be applicable on schools that do not receive government aid.

Private schools in Bihar were the first ones to oppose RTE. They even staged strikes against RTE. Though the deadline of registering with the government under RTE was November 2012, they did not get themselves registered, delaying implementation of RTE. In the last three years only 12,000 private schools have registered with the government though officials estimate their number to be more than double. Those who are registered are pressuring parents not to be vocal at SMC meetings.

imageFarida Lambay, member of the advisory council on implementation of the RTE Act, Maharashtra, explains: “Private schools argue that they must be exempted from RTE provisions because they do not receive government aid. But the land, water and power connections these institutions receive are heavily subsidised by the government.”

President of Forum for Fairness in Education, a Maharashtra-based association, Jayant Jain, says the government should be blamed for lack of enthusiasm among private schools. A survey of teachers from more than 100 private unaided and government schools in Mumbai, Thane and Kalyan is revealing. “Nearly 80 per cent teachers from private schools did not show interest in the Act or were not aware about it. This is when most government school teachers were at least acquainted with the basics of the Act,” says Chavan of PTA Forum who conducted the survey. This could be because there were several seminars and training programmes organised by the government for the teachers.

As expected, people are now approaching courts to seek implementation of RTE. On August 29, hearing a public interest petition on violation of the right by private schools, the Gujarat High Court issued a notice to the state government and Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation to enforce RTE. Social jurist Ashok Agrawal in Delhi says the Delhi High Court is also hearing at least a dozen such cases against poor RTE implementation by private schools.

(With inputs from Jitendra in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, Alok Gupta in Bihar, M Suchitra in Andhra Pradesh, and Akshay Deshmane and Aparna Pallavi in Maharashtra)

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